The Indian Act

Excerpt from 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph

Photo by Andrew George on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act by Bob Joseph.

The roots of the Indian Act lie in the Bagot Report of 1844 that recommended that control over Indian matters be centralized that the children be sent to boarding schools away from the influence of their communities and culture, that the Indians be encouraged to assume the European concept of free enterprise, and that land be individually owned under an Indian land registry system in which they could sell to each other but not to non-Indians. The Bagot Report provided the framework for the Indian Act, 1876.

When the British North America Act (BNA), or what is now known as the Constitution Act, 1867 was issued, it gave, under Section 91 (24), exclusive jurisdiction over “Indians and lands reserved for the Indians” to the federal government. With issue of the BNA, Canada was placed in a position of conflict of interest. On the one hand it was responsible for “Indians and lands reserved for Indians,” while, on the other hand, it was the responsible party for negotiating treaties and purchasing their land for the Crown.

Eight years later, when the regulations that impacted Indians were consolidated into the Indian Act, 1876, we star to get some insight into Indian policy:

Our Indian legislation general resets on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State…[T]he true interests of the aborigines and of the State alike require that every effort should be made to aid the Red man in lifting himself out of his condition of tutelage and dependence, and that is clearly our wisdom and our duty, through education and every other means, to prepare him for a higher civilization by encouraging him to assume the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship.

But that paternalistic attitude gave way to increasingly punitive rules, prohibitions, and regulations that dehumanized Indians. By the 1920s, Indian policy took on a much darker tone. Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, wrote: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem…our objective is to continue until there is not an Indian that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department…”

When details about the atrocities of World War II became known, coupled with the contributions by Indigenous soldiers during the war, Canadian began to judge how the government treated Indians. Information about the staggering number of deaths of children in residential school began to creep out Mainstream Canada took notice. To counter the negativity, the federal government commissioned a series of positive, short films about the schools, one of which signs off with “for the oldest Canadians, a new future.” There was a call for a Royal Commission to investigate Indian Affairs, the conditions on reserves, and discrimination against Indians. While the Royal Commission never took shape, a Special Joint Parliamentary Committee of the Senate and the House of Commons was formed to look into Canada’s policies and the management of Indian Affairs. After two years of hearings, the Joint Committee recommended:

a) The complete revision or repeal of every section in the Indian Act.

b) That Canada’s Indian Act be designed to make possible the gradual transition of the Indian from a position of wardship to citizenship. To achieve this goal the act should provide that:

i. Indian women be given a political voice in band affairs.

ii. Bands should be allowed more self-government.

iii. ands should be given more financial assistance.

iv. Indians should be treated the same as non-Indians in the matter of intoxicants.

v. Indian Affairs officials were to have their duties and responsibilities designed so as to assist the Indians attain the full rights of citizenship and to serve the responsibilities of self-government.

vi. Bands be allowed to incorporate as municipalities.

c) The guidelines for future policy were to be:

i. The easing of enfranchisement procedures

ii. Indians should be given the vote.

iii. When possible co-operate with the provinces in delivering services to the Indian people.

iv. Indian education should be geared for assimilation; ;therefore it should take place with non-Indian students.

Despite the recommendations, a 1951 amendment to the Act did not in fact bring much in the way of relief to Indians from the government’s formidable control over most aspects of their lives. This book deals primarily with the Indian Act and its many reiterations between 1869 and 1951. The Indian Act remains in effect today, with basically the same framework it had in 1876, despite the numerous amendments.

In this book I have endeavoured to provide insight into just 21 of the rules, regulations, and prohibitions of the Indian Act. It is an incredibly broad topic and a vast body of law that, in its entirety, continues to touch on every aspect of an Indian person’s life, from the womb to the tomb. Had I written about the entire Indian Act, it is unlikely anyone would read the book and we would have fallen down in our mission to inform people so that they can understand the past and move towards reconciliation. If you are interested in reading the full text of the Indian Act, 1876 please visit

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act – Summary

Here is the book summary:

Based on a viral article, 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act is the essential guide to understanding the legal document and its repercussion on generations of Indigenous Peoples, written by a leading cultural sensitivity trainer.

Since its creation in 1876, the Indian Act has shaped, controlled, and constrained the lives and opportunities of Indigenous Peoples, and is at the root of many enduring stereotypes. Bob Joseph’s book comes at a key time in the reconciliation process, when awareness from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities is at a crescendo. Joseph explains how Indigenous Peoples can step out from under the Indian Act and return to self-government, self-determination, and self-reliance—and why doing so would result in a better country for every Canadian. He dissects the complex issues around truth and reconciliation, and clearly demonstrates why learning about the Indian Act’s cruel, enduring legacy is essential for the country to move toward true reconciliation.

Copyright © 2018 by Bob Joseph.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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